Removing Rust From Your Guitar: Steps & Tips

The most effective way to remove rust from your guitar depends on where you have rust. You don’t want to use the same method on the bridge as you would on electronic pickups. You also will not want to deal with a small amount of rust in the same fashion you would deal with heavy deposits.

The easiest way to remove rust from your guitar parts is to simply soak them in white vinegar. Use a container that is big enough for the parts you need to soak and submerge them in white vinegar for three to four hours. Remove the part from the white vinegar bath and gently scrub the rust from the area with a shop cloth. Use dental tools or the tip of a small knife to remove any stubborn rust that remains. To restore the shine to the area, buff it with a shop cloth and a dab of metal polish.

Rusty vs clean screwI was skeptical at first, but I removed 85 years of rust from an old strap pin screw by soaking it in white vinegar for three hours. This method works well with non-electric parts and parts that can be removed and soaked. However it is not a good method to remove rust from frets, pickups, or sealed tuners.

In general, how do I get rust off my guitar?

Each metal part of a guitar should be treated differently when attempting to remove rust. You don’t want to soak electric parts like potentiometers or pickups or parts that can’t be removed like frets. You don’t want to sand parts that are a combination of plastic and metal. And you wouldn’t want to sand parts that can be easily soaked. Therefore, I will address cleaning each part separately.

Rust can form on any metal part that contains iron. That includes any iron alloys that are commonly used to create guitar parts, ie. steel. When iron interacts with oxygen and water, the iron begins to corrode. If addressed early, the rust is typically just on the surface and will flake off fairly easily. However, once the rust gets deeper it causes what is known as pitting. The rust is more difficult to remove from the pits once this has occurred and there is nothing you can do to get rid of the pits.

Frets, tuning machines, metal bridges, pickups, strap buttons, knobs, and screwheads can all rust. Many guitar players have an appreciation for the rust and think it contributes to the patina of an older instrument. Others, however, like to keep their instruments in pristine condition as long as possible and the solution for removing rust, though a bit time consuming, is fairly simple.

How do you get rust off of your guitar bridge?

The easiest way to remove rust from your guitar bridge is to soak it in vinegar. Most metal bridges are easily removed from guitars and therefore this is an easy treatment. You can also use a mixture of lemon juice and salt, a mixture of baking soda and water, or go straight for a calcium, lime, and rust remover such as CLR or Flitz Calcium, Rust, and Lime remover.

What do you need to get rust off of your guitar bridge?

  • White Vinegar or CLR
  • Container large enough to hold the bridge
  • Shop towels
  • Something to scrape the rust off (dental tools are optimal but a pen knife or small straight blade screwdriver will work as well)
  • Optional – Metal polish

Steps for getting rust off of your guitar bridge:

  1. Screw in white vinegarPlace bridge in container and pour in enough white vinegar or CLR to entirely submerge the area with rust.
  2. Soak for 3-4 hours in white vinegar, follow manufacturer instructions for CLR.
  3. Using a shop towel, scrub at the rusty area and wipe away the rust that is friable (flaky) and comes off easily.
  4. Using dental tools or the tip of a small knife, gently scrape at any remaining rust, being careful to confine your scraping exclusively to the area of rust.
  5. If rust is particularly bad and persists, you can resoak the bridge in white vinegar as many times as necessary to remove the remaining rust.

You can also use the above method to address rust on open and closed-back tuning machines but do not soak a sealed tuning machine in white vinegar or CLR. If you so choose, you can then use a shop cloth and a metal polish like Brasso, or my go-to, Simichrome Polish, to address any light scratches and to bring back the shine. You will also want to apply a lubricant to the gears when done. I recommend using a “dry” lubricant like Triflo or a teflon lubricant that contains a rapidly evaporating carrier.

Obviously, you wouldn’t want to address rust on any electronic parts or frets by soaking, but fear not, there are fairly simple methods to address those as well.

How do you get rust off of your guitar pickups?

What do you need to get rust off guitar pickups and closed tuning machines?

  • Mix of baking soda and water
  • Shop towel
  • Something to scrape the rust off (dental tools are optimal but a pen knife or small straight blade screwdriver will work as well)

Mix the baking soda and water into a thick paste, roughly the consistency of cake frosting. Not quite runny, but definitely not crumbly.

Steps for getting rust off of your guitar pickups and closed tuning machines:

  1. Apply the baking soda paste to the area with rust.
  2. Leave on for an hour.
  3. Using a shop towel, scrub at the rusty area and wipe away the rust that is friable (flaky) and comes off easily.
  4. Using dental tools or the tip of a small knife, gently scrape at any remaining rust being careful to confine your scraping to the area of rust.
  5. If rust is particularly bad and persists you can reapply the baking soda paste to remove any remaining rust.

This method can also be used to address rust on frets, however there is a much simpler solution for that. Most frets these days are made from nickel or stainless steel and rust is not an issue. Older guitars, however, were made with steel frets and will rust.

How do you get rust off of your guitar frets?

What you need to get rust off of frets:

Steps for getting rust off of your guitar frets:

  1. Tape the frets - guitarTo protect the fretboard and finish on the neck, tape off the area around the fret with painter’s tape.
  2. Rub the 600 grit sandpaper back and forth over the rusted fret in the direction of the fretboard.
  3. Once the rust has been removed, repeat by rubbing the fret with the steel wool.
  4. Finish it off by rubbing it with a dab of metal polish on a shop rag to give the fret a brand new look.
  5. Remove the painter’s tape and you’re off to the races.

If the rust is very light and shallow it can very often be addressed with just some metal polish and a shop cloth. Metal polish will also help protect the metal from oxygen and moisture for a few months thereby fending off rust.

Best solution for rust: prevention

As is with almost any guitar issue, the best solution for rust is prevention. You can prevent rust from starting by keeping your guitar clean and dry. Establish a cleaning routine of wiping your guitar down every time before and after you play it and it will greatly increase the odds that you won’t ever have to deal with rust.

There are other factors that come into play such as quality of the parts and environment that will determine if rust gets a foothold, but keeping a clean, dry guitar will always prevent rust for longer than if you do nothing. If you live in a coastal area or other humid environment you can also protect the metal by using a metal polish. It’s always nice to polish the metal on your guitar but as far rust resistance it isn’t as necessary in arid environments. I live in a high, arid desert region and have an 85 year-old guitar, a 32 year-old guitar, three 20 plus year-old guitars, and a few other guitars, mandolins, ukuleles and a banjo that I’m unsure of their age and the only place any of them have any rust is on the screw heads.

Finding the cleaning products in this article

If you’re looking for any of the products I’ve mentioned in this article, I’ve included links within the text that’ll point you to where you can conveniently view and buy them on Amazon. You could also find most of these items at your local department or hardware store.

Andy Query

After years of doing repairs for friends and family as a side hustle I started Ibex Custom Guitars and repair out of my shop in Garden City, Idaho. Along with repairs I build custom electric and acoustic guitars, ukuleles, and cajóns. I apprenticed for five years under Master Luthier John Bolin of Bolin guitars where we built custom guitars for some of the biggest names in rock & roll, including ZZ Top, Steve Miller, and Joe Perry to name a few.

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